A Poetics Of The Elizabethan Theatre Is


A Poetics Of The Elizabethan Theatre Is Inseparable, In Crucial Respects, From A Poetics Of Power. Essay, Research Paper

To approach the above discussion it must first be made clear what is meant by “poetics.” Todorov, in his book “Introduction to Poetics” (pg.7) defines poetics as a “name for everything that bears on the creation or composition of works having language at once as their substance and as their instrument.” This helps us to understand what is meant by “A poetics of the Elizabethan Theatre” – an exploration of all the external and internal influences that shaped and made the said theatre what it was – but it is less helpful in trying to assess what is meant by “a poetics of power.” However, with more thought, we can see that the above definition can be easily adapted to enable an interpretation of the meaning of this phrase to be made. “A poetics of power” will be taken to mean an inquiry, essentially, into the nature of power and its causes and effects, along with the inevitable moral questions which accompany it. More specifically it could be taken to mean an investigation into the factors influencing perceptions of power in Elizabethan times. To begin to examine whether a poetics of the theatre is inseparable in any respect from a poetics of power it is helpful to look at the mood and society of Elizabeth I’s reign and the creative period of Shakespeare’s life, whose second tetralogy, the history plays, this essay will on the whole concentrate upon as representative of Elizabethan theatre (whether this is in fact accurate is an interesting point, and indeed, as such, undoubtedly another essay.) However, for the purpose of this essay we will rely upon the evidence which suggests that Shakespeare’s plays, being widely documented as frequently performed and popular with wide-ranging audiences of the day, are likely to be fairly characteristic of Elizabethan theatre. At the time Shakespeare’s plays were first being performed society was in the process of changing steadily and fundamentally and it is widely believed that these changes are reflected in the history plays. Between 1536 and 1556 it is estimated that one fifth of all available land changed hands due to the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII and the largest proportion of this land was granted to untitled gentry and rich yeomen. They set about creating profit rather than merely subsistence out of the land. This new class became widely known as the enterprising or “new gentry” along with people who had been ennobled since the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign. They began to gain in power during Elizabeth’s reign, but their’s was an economic and therefore secular power as a pose to the “divine” or God-given power of the ancient nobility who achieved their position in society through the laws of succession. This is reflected in a popular proverb of the day, “As riseth my good So riseth my blood.” The ancient nobility felt threatened by this new group of “saucy upstart courtiers” and much was made of their selfish profiteering ways. They resented the attention the queen gave to this group and the Dukes of Norfolk and Sussex are reputed to have led a faction which desired to retain the priviledges of the old aristocracy. Elizabeth tried to appease them by affording them new priviledges in court but there was constant tension between the two groups and even a (failed) revolution by some of the old aristocracy in 1572. Along with these problems the gradual erosion of the feudal system was also causing great change and some unrest in society. Elizabeth’s power was largely based upon mediating between these two groups and ensuring that neither became powerful enough to challenge her autocracy. Her rule can therefore be seen as somewhat precarious and the disorder and conflict prevalent in the social order of the day becomes apparent. Shakespeare’s history plays can be seen to mirror this state of affairs somewhat, although whether this would have been apparent to a large part of an audience of the day will be looked at later. In Richard II we see an ineffective King presiding over mounting turmoil. The very first scene affords us a view of two noblemen accusing each other of high treason over the murder of a third. Instantly a picture of disorder, underhand dealings and edginess is conveyed to us. Soon we are to learn that the King himself is believed to have been involved in the aforesaid murder further adding to the treachery already apparent. The ordered ” Garden of England ” is not as it should be. When Bolingbroke is banished and Gaunt subsequently takes to his deathbed we begin to understand how deep the dissatisfaction with Richard’s rule is. Gaunt proclaims to Richard “Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land Wherein thou liest in reputation sick” We also learn of Richard’s financial troubles, firstly on the news of Gaunt’s imminent death as Richard plans to appropriate his lands in order to pay for the planned Irish war, and also in Gaunt’s famous line “Landlord art thou now of England, not king:” Richard’s rule is beginning to look more and more troubled and as a king he is apparently very unpopular. It would not be true to say that Elizabeth was an unpopular monarch but in an increasingly secular society questions were beginning to be asked about the divine right to autocratic rule which we can see parallelled in the conflict over the question of Richard’s continuing claim to the throne. Although the older nobles such as York and Gaunt, before his death, are well aware of Richard’s human inadequacy as a king, they represent the old order in maintaining that ” God’s anointed deputy ” cannot be questioned. In Elizabethan society of the day the old aristocracy were also maintaining that power could only be God-given and not acquired by other means. They wanted change kept to a minimum and also generally objected to religious reform which the new gentry favoured and advanced. The old nobility in both the play and the contemporary Elizabethan social order epitomised the old order which was being ever more frequently challenged by more secularly minded groups, including both the new aristocracy and the masses. Richard never sees his power as being in any doubt at all despite the troubles in his court. Whether this is because he is unaware of the seriousness of the troubles he faces despite Gaunt’s warnings, “England, bound in with the triumphant sea, Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame, With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:” or because he sees his rule, foolishly, as unquestionable can be debated but both would appear to be true if we look at the text. Richard leaves Gaunt’s deathbed exclaiming “Art thou a lunatic lean-witted fool…..” and even when all appears lost in Wales after his troops have deserted him he refuses to accept imminent defeat, demanding “Is not the King’s name twenty thousand names?” He appears to believe some other force will save him, namely divine providence, despite his lack of an army and his deep unpopularity with his subjects. His impending doom is largely as a result of his unwillingness to heed advice and his foolish actions of banishing Bolingbroke and disenfranchising him of his estate, although this is obviously the straw that breaks the camel’s back. What contributed to it was his refusal to adequately consider the sentiments of the nobility, especially in regard to the attentions and priviledges accorded to his “army of flatterers” including Bushy, Bagot and Green between whom and the new aristocracy obvious parallels can be drawn, and the sentiments of his common subjects also “whom he hath taxed half to death” to fund his profligacy. Elizabeth’s reign, although attempting to mediate between classes, served in the long term the dominant class; the new or “enterprising” gentry, and her costly foreign wars, especially with the Spanish, along with the constant expenditure involved in subduing the Scots and the Irish forced her to sell crown lands and frequently left her with no alternative but to plead with the Commons for extra grants who then had to impose new taxes to pay for them. Although Elizabeth managed to obtain this money and to pay her troops it severely weakened her position and eventually led to civil war which, although it was not imminent when he was writing, Shakespeare may have conceivably foreseen the possibility of. Despite the growth of England’s population, trade, overseas colonies, and general wealth in “the Golden Era of the Elizabethans” this was no longer enough to ensure the basis of state power without domestic harmony, much as Richard’s divine right was no longer enough to ensure his autocracy when faced with similar problems. Shakespeare’s plays could well be seen to be pondering how much longer such rule could continue. The cultural setting of the second tetralogy could therefore well be seen, whilst primitive, to mirror the degenerating society of the day and the weakening of the monarchy that ensued. Bolingbroke appears, as both a popular hero and the paragon of the nobility, to be the answer to England’s prayers. Even before he usurps Richard’s throne however, we start to become aware that his ambitions are not purely patriotic and selfless. Although he claims to come originally to claim what is proclaimed rightly his; the estates of Lancaster, it quickly becomes apparent that he seeks rather more than this, namely the crown, and that this was probably his intention in the first place. He has obtained some of his support therefore by deceit and this tarnishes him before he is even crowned. He has also shown disregard for the power of the King by defying his banishment, which serves to undermine his own power when King. He can only ensure power by killing Richard and even then he has no exclusive right to the throne, and by the very way he has become king he has fundamentally changed the nature of kingship, changing it from a divine right to a secular position based upon the support of his subjects. He has proved that the monarch is not protected by divine providence and does not have the automatic right to rule: in short that he/she is challengable. Richard’s public humiliation in the street shows how little respect the masses have for the notion of “God’s Deputy on Earth” after he has transgressed certain boundaries and may well have echoed the sentiments of a large part of Shakespeare’s early audiences which are reported to have been made up of many classes, with the greatest proportion being made up of craftsmen and their apprentices; hired labourers and household servants were next, with the merchant classes coming a poor third. If we take the ensuing Revolution of 1640 as evidence we can assume that the masses were likely to have been starting to become more and more dissatisfied with the social order of the day at this time and fundamental ideas of power were almost certainly beginning to be challenged more widely. Despite Henry’s widesread popularity which appeared to permeate both extremes of the social spectrum, the question of whether his accession is a dawn or a twilight for the monarchy is being asked even in the concluding scenes of Richard II when Richard prophesises that Bolingbroke ” is come to open The purple testament of bleeding war” and we see a plotted rebellion before the end of the play. In the opening scenes of Henry IV we are presented with a backdrop of war and further unrest and rebellion in the kingdom. Henry is having trouble maintaining his power for reasons foreseen in the previous play. Images of decay and degeneration pervade the play with an allegory being made of the inn where we meet the carriers; ” this house is turned upside down since Robin Ostler died.” and “your chamber-lie breeds fleas like a loach” being typical statements of the conversation between them. Henry is also described as “that canker Bolingbroke” to Richard’s “sweet lovely rose:” memories are obviously short and Henry is facing rebellion once more from dissatisfied courtiers. Hotspur, Northumberland and Worcester talk of plucking up “drowned honour by the locks.” This poetics of power takes account of the possibility of resistance; it is a condition of its existance as power. In this vein we meet Falstaff for the first time; with his total lawlessness and disrespect for authority he could be seen to represent a growing area of public opinion in Elizabethan times: it is worth remembering that audiences are said to have clamoured for him. We also encounter Hal for the first time here. He looks as though he could be going to cause his father some trouble and is behaving irresponsibly much as Richard did. He does however offer us some hope for the future when he talks of “My reformation, glittering o’er my fault” and promises to be “Redeeming time when men think least I will” On the whole though the monarchy’s power seems to be waning in Henry IV as England sinks further into chaos, from the old, nostalgically remembered old order into contemporary disorder. Even this new breed of king is proving to be much the same as the others, a feeling no doubt empathised with by audiences. A rather different question is being asked here about power. Not only is the divine right of the old order to power being queried but the authority and feasability of any absolutism is being examined. A flicker of hope for the monarchy appears in the shape of Hal who is the legal heir to the throne and very quickly distances himself from his dubious past and cronies. He is a well liked king and a man of the people which helps to legitimate his power even though he is unequivocally King. He changes the nature of kingship still further here by proclaiming himself a man like any other; again similarities with Richard’s speech just before he is deposed can be seen; but Hal promulgates “I think the King is but a man as I am ” in disguise at Agincourt at the height of his power. Regardless of his popularity, efficacy and relative humility however, Hal’s authority is called into question by Shakespeare, this time in the shape of Williams. Whilst Falstaff’s debauchery shows a disdain for the authority of Henry IV, Williams’ is a reasoned argument which he puts forward to the King just before the battle. Hal has just proclaimed himself a man like his soldiers, but gone on to say that death is no threat to them as they fight in a good cause with clear consciences. Williams reminds him of the reality of death on the battlefield and of the widows and orphans left behind and in so doing makes Hal morally responsible for their suffering. A parallel can be drawn here with the thousands of British soldiers engaged in battle in Europe during the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, but more importantly Williams inadvertantly asks yet another question on the subject of power; whether anyone can have the right to force a man to fight and die on a battlefield. Henry is unable to provide adequate answers to these questions At the end of the play Williams’ glove is filled with crowns – the play on words here is almost certainly intentional – to signify a changing power structure to come. The play (Henry V) cannot settle on an answer to the problem of what it means to be King, but the whole tetralogy poses questions concerning the proper location of power in the present and the future. It affords the audience a view of a new idea of histories made by people. Resistance of power is a requirement of the plot, and the questions on power are no longer metaphysical but political and therefore inclined towards struggle. Whether this was obvious to an Elizabethan audience however is debatable. Theatre then was under state censorship and any material considered subversive or as asking the “wrong” questions would have been unlikely to have been allowed to be widely performed as the history plays were. Elizabeth I is however reputed to have said “I am Richard II; know ye not that?” and as we mentioned earlier,audiences clamoured for Falstaff. Whether it is only with hindsight that the possibilities of allusions to the Tudor monarchy become apparent or not, there is no doubt in my mind that a poetics of; or namely a thorough inquiry into the nature and meaning of power, is widely recognisable and indeed largely the lifeblood of the history plays and consequently, it would be reasonable to assume, the Elizabethan theatre as a whole. SORRY, NO BIBLIOGRAPHY IS AVAILABLE FOR THIS ESSAY MARKED 70%

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